Food poisoning is intoxicating, but it sure isn’t a good time

I don’t think, as a scientist, that I believe in karma. But on the other hand, a few weeks ago when I wrote a column delighting in the thought of mosquitoes having food poisoning, I kind of had a feeling that I shouldn’t be gloating.

Technically, there is a difference between food poisoning and food-borne illness, although those kinds of technicalities are not appreciated by those who are suffering from either one. I was explaining this to my wife, but she told me she really didn’t care at the moment. (Actually, my scientific knowledge has never really been fully appreciated in my own home.)

When microorganisms grow, they produce certain waste products. Microorganisms like to eat a lot of the same kinds of things that you and I like to eat, so when we eat contaminated food we are made sick by the waste products of these microorganisms. This is food poisoning.

If you or I eat these waste products that are toxic to us, we become intoxicated. This is exactly what happens when one drinks an alcoholic beverage. A microorganism creates alcohol as a waste product, and if you consume the waste you become intoxicated.

I am not very familiar with alcohol intoxication, but if the aftereffects are anything like food intoxication, I don’t understand what the big deal is. This intoxication is technically what we call food poisoning. You might want to make special note of that now because, apparently, it is less interesting once you have it.

By the way, you can tell food poisoning from food-borne illness by the time it takes to strike after ingestion. The toxins in microorganism waste can irritate the stomach and intestines quite quickly, depending on how much contaminated food is consumed. It usually strikes within about six hours.

There really isn’t much one can do for food poisoning. Like alcohol poisoning, it is self-limiting if you just quit ingesting the toxin. People seldom die of food poisoning.

(Of course, during the actual intoxication period, people sometimes vacillate between fearing they will die and wishing they could.)

Food poisoning can be dangerous because of dehydration. One can lose a tremendous amount of fluid in a short period of time.

In contrast, food-borne illnesses have longer periods of time before symptoms occur. With this illness, the microorganism itself has to move through the stomach, into the intestine, attach to the wall of the intestine and begin to increase in number before the waste products can accumulate enough to have an effect. Symptoms usually do not appear for 12 to 15 hours.

Can you remember what you had to eat that long ago? I bet you can’t even remember if you sneaked a Twinkie yesterday or not.

Food-borne illness can be a little more dangerous, as it can last for several days. Because one is ill longer with this affliction, one can lose even more fluid than in the case of food poisoning. However, most such infections are also self-limiting.

But these infections can cause further complications such as muscle spasms, which can appear to be a heart attack, which can cause one’s wife to call an ambulance to take one to the emergency room where one may be given morphine, which is a completely different, albeit interesting, kind of intoxication. (At least that’s what I have been told.)

Dozens of organisms can cause food poisoning or food-borne illnesses. Common Staphylococcus aureus, which is found on all humans, can cause food poisoning in food prepared by humans. (If the food is prepared by something other than a human, there are even other risks.)

But I would suggest that you not eat the bacon at breakfast smorgasbords in motels. Come to think of it, maybe I wouldn’t eat the pastries, either, or the eggs. Maybe a glass of orange juice would be fine.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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